The season of the bee

The season of the bee is upon us and it was good to be back in the thick of it at the apiary yesterday. Thomas Bickerdike was running the beginners’ session on Saturday afternoon as efficiently as a bee. His workers and drones were organised into two groups to take turns at looking inside the hives and learning about other practical aspects of the craft.

Emily was showing the first group one of our hives – Hope’s colony – so I went to watch the beginners watch the bees. It is always fun to see hive life again through new eyes.

Our oldest hive of six years now is booming. Bees were bursting out of the brood box and every frame was almost full of brood and stores. It was a delight to see after their challenging season last year struggling to build up after a mild, damp winter and multiple queen failures. But they had persevered. “How many queens have you had?” asked a beginner. “Lots,” I said. Queen Hope appeared on cue. She is the tenth queen in a line of eight generations of queens, of the same line, since Emily and I have started to share the hive in 2011. I’ve made a family tree from the record that has been kept for our queens (below) which may be clearer to look at than the table.

As Hope isn’t marked – she first made her appearance to Thomas who looked after the hive from September to October last year while Emily and I were both away, and this was only the third or fourth proper hive inspection of the year, I think – I got out my queen marking kit for Emily to demonstrate caging and marking a queen for the beginners; although Hope’s workers did protest, Emily managed to mark the queen.

With the queen put safely back inside the hive, it was the turn of the next group to look at Dinesh’s hive, which is also doing well. It looks like it may be a good year for the bees at Ealing apiary. The session was soon over, and some of the beginners had floated off to watch John Chapple inspect last week’s shook-swarmed hive while others opted for tea and cake. Emily and I watched John going through the frames – he is always a pleasure to watch working with the bees – and then also decided to get a cup of tea. Emily and Kathy had both baked this weekend so there was a good choice of Saturday afternoon cake and biscuits.

Thomas was teaching the beginners how to make a frame – using our pack of super frames as you can see above. At the end of his workshop there were seven very neatly made super frames ready to put into a super for Hope’s hive. The colony is getting bigger, however, in the end we left the super off until next weekend. The weather forecast for the week ahead is supposedly colder – with icy winds arriving from Iceland – and we still need to swap out three old frames for new in the brood nest. We want the bees to fill these before moving up into a super.

Of course, a super might also slow down the bees from starting preparations to swarm – or it might simply create a cold empty space above the colony depending on the accuracy of the weather forecast for the week ahead – but then again, we might need the workers to make us some spare queens for our other colony which may be queenless.

As the day got cooler, I lit up the smoker to inspect our second hive. There was still no sight of the queen, Patience, or any sign that she was there – no eggs or young larvae, and the worker bees being less patient than usual. There are a few things that we can do:

• shake the bees into one box and keep them warm and fed in the hope that this might stimulate the queen to lay and show herself, while also putting in another test frame of eggs this time from Hope’s hive;

• or simply combine the colony with Hope’s after a thorough frame-by-frame inspection to make sure that Patience isn’t hiding in there somewhere.

We settled on thinking about it for another week – the situation is unlikely to get better or worse in the meantime – and to carry out our plans next weekend when the apiary is less busy. Perhaps Hope’s hive will conveniently produce some queen cells between now and next Saturday – and even more conveniently on one of the remaining three brood frames that we need to swap out for new frames (wouldn’t that be nice!). We could then use these to either test or re-queen Patience’s hive, while exercising swarm control on Hope’s hive. (If only things always worked out that well!)

The smoker had gone out and it was time to leave. As you can see, I have a beautiful new basket to carry my beekeeping kit – a present from my friends Prakash and Beata. The sun came out hot from behind the clouds as I walked home and enjoyed spotting the honeybees and bumble bees foraging along the path.

We’ve had some really sunny days in April and although the month is likely to end on a cold snap, here are some beautiful photos for you to enjoy of Easter weekend in Hereford and of a walk on the Malvern Hills. The familiar sight of the golden fields of oilseed rape will provide a bounty of forage for the bees.

Edit 1 May 2017: The bees read my blog, so it seems. I found five queen cells (three unsealed) in Hope’s hive yesterday afternoon (Hope is still inside the hive) and all were on an old frame that needed to be swapped for a new frame anyway. So I took out the queen cells to give to Patience’s hive (who are so ill-tempered now they are most likely queenless) and gave Hope’s hive another new brood frame (well, two actually) to play with.

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12 thoughts on “The season of the bee

  1. Lovely pictures. I really enjoyed your family tree of queens, never thought of thinking of the hives that way. Very cool. Enjoy the spring!

    • Probably I’m a bit odd, Erik! 😉 But I do like the bees family tree too 🙂 I started it a few years ago when someone commented at the apiary how they liked that we let the bees requeen themselves and could trace generations of queens in the same line. So I decided to make a note of it. I hope your bees are enjoying spring too!

    • Hello Mark! That’s because previously when I did something at the apiary, I’d come home and think “Ah, I wish I’d done this or that instead”. So now, unless I’m faced with a very imminent swarm, I prefer to wait a few days or a week before acting. The bees have taught me to be patient! 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for doing the Queens’ family tree! It’s lovely to be able to look back on.

    Re “although Hope’s workers did protest, Emily managed to mark the queen” – I think I managed to show the beginners how not to do it. You should have seen how quickly John did a queen marking last week, it was over in moments. I’m always too nervous about pushing the queen cage down enough in case I squash her.

    • But you still did mark her 🙂 I don’t like being watched when doing anything, so can totally understand myself! I’m much better at beekeeping when there isn’t a crowd! 😉

  3. Hi, Emma, It is so wonderful to read your experience of hive inspection. You always include such beautiful pictures, and very helpful comments.
    The only difficulty I often face is that although the bees are supposed to keep a bee-space between each frame, Sometimes I feel that they have not read the same books that you and I read. In the strong colonies, the frames are literally stuck together and in pulling them out I tend to cause a fair bit of damage and honey flows in the hive.
    I do wish you good luck with your bees and of course all the best to you and Emily – Kourosh

    • Thank you so much Kourosh- I always enjoy reading yours and Amelia’s blog too for just the same reason! I wonder if the bees do read the same books we do and then do exactly the opposite? 😉 I find with strong colonies they cram the super so much that even with frames correctly ‘bee-spaced’ it is almost impossible to pull out a frame; although I’ve not had that problem in the brood nest the frames can get pretty propolised. On those days I comfort myself with the thought that at least the bees are strong and well! I hope your honey flow is strong this year! Best, Emma

      • Thanks. You are so right that we should be just glad that they are strong colonies. – Kourosh

  4. beautiful photographs!

    I really like the family tree representation, that’s a great addition to the standard record keeping and interesting to see the progression over time.

  5. Pingback: Pick and mix 3 – another set of eclectic links | Don't Forget the Roundabouts

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